I discovered the work of New Zealand author Helen Lowe some six years ago, and was immediately hooked by her first book, Thornspell. I later discovered and enjoyed her epic Wall of Night series, including The Heir of Night, The Gathering of the Lost and now Daughter of Blood. To celebrate the release of the latter, I invited Helen to pop by the blog and chat about all things Wall, Daughter and writing-related. Really, it was an excuse to pick Helen’s brains about the background processes that went into the creation of this novel, to hear her take on strength and strong characters, particularly strong female characters, and to hear a little about her research and world-building.
I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
MARY: Welcome to the blog, Helen. I am so pleased you were able to come by at what must be a busy time. First of all, I believe congratulations are in order for the publication of the third instalment of the Wall of Night series: Daughter of Blood. Writing a novel is often a long and lonely experience, so its publication is an occasion to celebrate both the book’s release and your own (temporary) liberation! I say temporary, because now everyone is waiting impatiently for Book Four.
I have been following the Wall books since the first instalment in your series, The Heir of Night, and discovered this newest addition with pleasure. In it we follow the continuing adventures of Malian and her group of friends, in the march towards what looks to be a seriously epic denouement between the various powers at work on Haarth. As the blurb points out: “[t]he Darkswarm is gaining strength, and time is running out—for Malian, for Kalan, and for all of Haarth…”
I must say, I really liked this third book. It gave me a more in-depth glimpse of the diverse cultures in your invented world, and was a chance to understand how the Derai tick, particularly when seen from the point of view of your Daughter of Blood. Without giving too much away, I enjoyed discovering your world through the eyes of someone who was in some ways quite “ordinary”, and lacked the grand powers associated with heroes in general. Was it your intention to approach the storytelling in that fashion, or did it happen as you went along?
HELEN: Thank you, Mary, both for the invitation to join you today but also for the congratulations on publication of Daughter of Blood. As you know well, being a writer yourself, the process can be as exhausting, with release day celebrations, blog tours and other promotional activity, as it is — unquestionably — exhilarating, to finally see your “little story” sail off into the world. I call the process of writing the book “the loneliness of the long distance writer” because, for me anyway, completing a novel is an endurance event. But it’s also very rewarding when the story finally acquires something resembling the ‘shape’ you have always imagined. As for when it is finally an actual book in your hand, with a cover that has your name on it, well — ooh la la!
I am so glad, too, that you enjoyed the read, Mary, not least because I know you are a discerning reader but also because Daughter of Blood decided to fully live up to ‘novel writing as an endurance event.” Yet the story, or the Muse, or my authorial subsconscious (yer pays yer monies, or not, dear readers, and takes yer picks on that one 😉 ) was always right when it threw me a curved ball, or placed an obstacle in my path that made me rethink what I was doing, or why — yes, even when the upshot was retracing my storytelling steps and finding a different path to where I wanted to go. Yet if the book reads well, then I do not regret one retraced step or rewritten word, because doing justice to the story and delivering on excellence of reader experience are what storytelling is all about — in my humble opine, anyway. (While also acknowledging that there are a tremendous range of reader preferences out there and no one book or author can hope to fulfill them all.)
To come finally to your question regarding telling the Daughter story through the eyes of someone quite “ordinary” — in the sense of not having magical powers or being a leader in either politics or war — yes, the character of Myr was present in my original vision for the story. It was always my intention, too, that she should offer a contrasting perspective on what constitutes strength, particularly when juxtaposed with characters such as Malian, the mage, former covert operative, and now emerging political leader, or Asantir, who is both a warrior-hero in her own right and a commander of armies. So I always knew that Myr would be a gentle spirit, but once I actually started telling her story, her character took off and really blossomed in terms of personal integrity and finding her own path — which was as rewarding for me, as the author, as I hope it will be for readers, sharing the journey of the book with her.
MARY: I love that definition of strength, expressed as gentleness and integrity. Absolutely! I’m glad to see an alternative to the usual, tough-as-nails fantasy female character who has to “kick ass” to be seen as strong. (Nothing against kick-ass heroines, but variety is the spice.) Myr struck me as being strong in a very different way: she had the courage to face up to more powerful adversaries and stand up for what was right. That’s difficult when you have little in the way of magic or physical brawn to fall back on… I liked her endurance and flexibility, too. To indulge in metaphor, she’s the bamboo who bends and weathers the storm while the big tree snaps.
Regarding backtracking in writing, I’ve found personally that when that becomes necessary, it’s also a godsend. Painful to do, but the work is so much better for it.
All right, I have another question for you about Daughter of Blood, which brings me back in part to the issue of strength. I’d have to be a dunce not to notice that you write strong female characters (you mention a few by name, above.) They are all strong in different ways. Another interesting point is that quite often, that strength is not questioned by those around them, but accepted and supported, added to, used to the full. What I mean by that is, with the exception perhaps of Myr, I have noticed that these heroines do not spend their time justifying themselves, proving their worth or trying to convince the world around them to simply give them a chance. I find that rather a relief. It seems that a fair number (though not all) of the men who encounter these strong women are able to recognize their talents and appreciate what they do.
How conscious was your desire to portray a more or less equal playing field for women, certainly women with martial or magical ability in the Derai world?
HELEN: Just reflecting a little further on Myr, I think you have arrived at the nub of what I was trying to achieve with her character, which was to explore strength of character as a concept distinct from physical prowess, or political or magical power. The exploration could also be described as a reflection on what constitutes moral fibre, if not outright moral leadership…
The matter-of-fact equality of the Derai world, at least when it comes to gender equality, was not something I consciously thought about and planned with respect to the series: it was simply the way the story, the society, and the characters deployed on the page of the first book, i.e. you might say that they wrote themselves that way. To be honest, I wasn’t even conscious of it as a distinguishing feature of my work until The Heir of Night, The Wall of Night Book One, was published and reviewers and readers commented on that aspect of the story. However, once these external observations led me to reflect further, it seemed self-evident that in a society where gender equality was an established fact, then people within that society wouldn’t comment on or angst over it, but would simply accept it, and so of course the characters would have each others’ backs, regardless of gender. For them to do otherwise would be like us questioning breathing, or whether the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, when in fact we just take it as given. That is how it is with the Derai: they just take the gender equality of their society as given, to the extent that it’s invisible to them.
By contrast, in the second novel in the series, The Gathering of the Lost, where it has become unusual (although not unprecedented) for women in the Southern Realms’ duchy of Emer to become knights, the emergence of a female knight-in-training does generate discussion among the characters. When it comes to magical ability, however, there is little or no difference between the capabilities of Emer’s male and female adepts, which I like to think at least partly explains the Southern dukedom’s relatively equal society in gender terms. Of course, having seen the reviews and reader commentary in respect of The Heir of Night, I was much more conscious of what I was writing, in gender terms, in the subsequent two books. This led me to think more rigorously, and consciously, about the internal consistency of the societies in this respect. Overall, I believe this is a good thing, even if the original concept of the gender-equal Derai society arose naturally through the act of storytelling, rather than by predetermined design.
MARY: I find it interesting that your default position was one of equality, adjusted later in your writing process to reflect local variants. The default position in so many fantasy stories these days is to reflect either the current struggles of women, or else a certain view of what life was like in historical contexts. I’m also very interested in the fact that Myr has an unshakeable moral core. Again, that’s quite rare in our times of “gritty” fantasy and fictional takes on realpolitik, where characters are required to betray their most deeply-held values as par for the course.
On another subject, I also enjoyed discovering the rich traditions of Derai culture for the first time in this book. Could you tell me a little about your research and what inspired the courtly and martial traditions of Blood?
HELEN: In terms of your initial observation regarding fantasy and the status of women, I am also aware of these trends but it seems to me that in writing fiction, particularly fantastic fiction, one should take the opportunity to imagine what “could be” as well as what “is” now or “was” historically — although I believe there is plenty of evidence to suggest that history was by no means as monolithic as some writers would have us believe, even in relation to the status of women.
With respect to Myr’s “unshakeable moral core”, that is certainly how her character developed and the way the story played out, although again I did not start from a point where my author’s note against Myr read as “unshakeable moral core.” Yet although The Wall of Night series is most commonly described as epic fantasy, it may also be termed “heroic fantasy”: i.e. it is a story that centres on heroes and explores what makes a person a hero (whether female or male.) In that sense it is absolutely a tale about moral cores, as well as about gritty realism and realpolitik, all of which more than play their part in Daughter of Blood. One aspect that particularly struck me when developing Myr’s character was how, given her circumstances, she would have internalized the particular values that she holds – simply because although disposition may be inborn, I suspect values are something we learn. In that sense, Myr’s relationship with Mistress Ise, as well as with the guards Dab and Taly, are all central to understanding her character.
To come (finally!) to your question, I didn’t really research culture in terms of the Derai. My specific research for Daughter of Blood centred on sieges and related matters such as disease and medicine, rather than culture. However, I have a strong interest in history, and read historical non-fiction as well as fiction, as well as having travelled reasonably widely both through my reading and in fact. So it may be that my exposure to both historical and contemporary cultures has imbued the development of the Derai society — particularly in terms of the logical progression that any society that has been a “people under arms” for not just millennia, but aeons, is going to have a deeply inculcated martial culture. In terms of some of the historical cultures that might have influenced my thinking around the Derai, those where I have read more widely include the Spartans, the Macedonian armies of Philip II and then Alexander the Great, and the Romans, including the Republican and earlier and later (Western and Eastern) Empire periods. I have also read a reasonable amount about different periods in Chinese history and Japan in both the pre-Shogunate and Shogunate eras. In The Gathering of the Lost, however, I can tell you that Emerian society is informed by, without being in any way a direct replica of, the Burgundian knights in the heyday of their power. I understand the armoured “knights” of medieval Korean society also trained in similar ways, although I’m far less familiar with their society and history.
MARY: I love the Spartan and Macedonian connection, and read much Mary Renault as a child for similar reasons… 🙂 I did indeed feel the siege and medical knowledge coming through in the book. It felt grounded in the possible, in a world very much like our own.
One last question, Helen. Can you give us a glimpse of what to look forward to in Book Four, and a rough idea of when the book might be out?
HELEN: Ah, the mighty Mary Renault. Her Athenian trilogy is one of my favourite historical sequences — and come to think of it, her children’s book, The Lion in the Gateway, was probably a formative influence, although Rosemary Sutcliff is also very much present in the historical fiction mix.
I am glad you felt Daughter of Blood was grounded in the possible, because making the world feel real is as important to me as the “strange magic” of my particular style of fantasy — although the magical and fantastic elements are very important, too. To hark back to an earlier point, I think speculative fiction is short-changing itself — and readers — if it doesn’t strive to explore something beyond the square of what we already know and to consider what “what if” and “other” could mean. In that sense, although your Chronicles of the Tree is a very different story on the surface, I think the subsurface exploration of “otherness” is an element the two series have in common.
Ah, Book Four… Well, the working title is The Chaos Gate and I can tell you that it is definitely the last book in the series. As for what is in it, I am something of a Taoist in my writing approach in that I find “the book that can be spoken of is not the book.” Plus I don’t want to jinx anything so I shall say no more than: “last book, which will complete the series” and last but not least, “working on it!”
Thank you very much for inviting me to do this interview, Mary. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.
MARY: It’s my pleasure! I’m always thrilled to be allowed pick authors’ brains, and find out more about what makes them and their characters tick. And I do agree, the exploration of “otherness”, and more specifically the dismantling of concepts of “us” and “them”, is the key to many a good tale.
But that is a (long) discussion for another time, I hope. Meanwhile, those who wish to buy The Wall of Night series in the UK can do so here: The Wall of Night on Amazon UK. US readers can look here: The Wall of Night on Amazon US and Aus/NZ can find the series here: The Wall of Night on Fishpond.
Thank you for joining me today, Helen.
Helen’s first novel Thornspell, (Knopf) was published to critical praise in 2008, and in 2012 The Heir Of Night, The Wall Of Night Book One, won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Fantasy Newcomer. The Gathering of The Lost, (The Wall Of Night Book Two), was shortlisted for the David Gemmell Legend Award in 2013.
She is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.
I will soon be posting an interview with Helen Lowe about her new book in the Wall of Night series, Daughter of Blood. Watch this space… 🙂
I first met Gillian Polack at Worldcon 2010, in Melbourne, where she impressed me with her knowledge of medieval history and seemingly endless store of chocolate. I later had the pleasure of discovering her speculative fiction, which turned out to be just as rewarding. Her writing manages to imbue the mundane with troubling significance: in her world, ordinary household items are cursed, cups of tea subtly magical and the private lives of less than glamorous subjects explored. No need here for a feisty young Chosen One with awesome abilities to take on the evil empire. Dr Polack’s protagonists are older women, people traditionally invisible in wider society, or those seen as ‘failures’. The evil empire is all too recognizable and consists of mean-spirited work colleagues, prejudice or the consequences of toxic emotional baggage. For those who have tasted a degree of invisibility in their own lives, and indeed for anyone looking to add a different and interesting twist to their fantasy, such heroes are thrilling in a way the standard teen protagonist with his/her tight abdominal muscles and unstoppable powers is not.
When I heard Gillian was about to celebrate the release of another novel, in fact the release of two more novels – this year alone! – I had to know more. So I inveigled her into appearing on this blog…
Mary: Welcome, Gillian. I’m glad to have you here on the blog, as I needed to ask you a question. I feel like every time I turn around, you’ve published another book. Haven’t you had at least three new publications this year? Are you a demon of productivity or is this just me losing track of time?
All the articles are brand new and shiny, but everything else is fifteen years of hard work reaching the outside world. I have more contracted, too, and four novels and my academic book will be published in 2016 and 2017.
Until last year most of these books were being looked at by various publishers. They would be looked at for between eight months and eight years (seriously, a particular publisher held onto one of my manuscripts for eight years!) but all the fiction was taken on by a small Aussie publisher last year. The two non-fiction books (one published this year and one for next) are different publishers.
It’s all a bit strange, when I stop to think about it, but I don’t have time to stop and think, so that’s fine. I haven’t actually sold my soul to the Devil, nor do I write that quickly. My next date for an unwritten novel to be with my publisher isn’t until April 2017, in fact, and I’ve already started researching it. It’s a vast number of novels (from where I sit, at least), but they’ve been fifteen years in the making.
The two novels this year are part of a sequence of three books set in Canberra. They are, due to the vagaries of the publishing world, #1 The Art of Effective Dreaming and #3 The Time of the Ghosts. #2 was Ms Cellophane, which is published by Momentum, so they won’t ever be marketed as three linked books. They’re only linked in theme, however: I wanted to explore specific issues to do with different stages in life, with women’s lives, and with Canberra. They’re stand-alone books.
Mary: I am reassured to know that you haven’t written two novels and a hefty academic tome in the time it’s taken me to find an affordable place to live in London. Granted, it took me two years to do the latter… but still.
Having enjoyed Ms Cellophane, I look forward to hearing about those novels. I’m particularly intrigued by the ghost story (I love a good ghost story.) Could you tell me a little more about it?
Gillian: It’s not your normal ghost story. It’s about people and the baggage they carry, and some of that baggage is ghostly. The novel tells the story of a fairy tale moment in the life of Canberra. It’s a moment when the cultures and beings brought by those who moved here in the last two hundred years manifest. They’re our dreams and our nightmares: dreams and nightmares are dangerous.
Years ago, I gave a talk to guides at the Melbourne Jewish Museum. Most of them were over 75 and nearly all of them were women. We talked after my talk and I found out how much they did with their lives. They do so much volunteer work of so many kinds and yet they’re invisible to most Australians. I realised that in Australian culture the people who can best get away with secret super hero lives are elderly women. I wanted to read books about these women and their amazing lives: there weren’t any.
This isn’t just a story about ghosts, then, it’s a story of the amazing lives of adult women above a certain age. There are appropriate superpowers. And, because many of the elderly women I’ve spoken to since are optional extras in the life of the community and their family and friends don’t spend time together, I’ve focused on the friendships. Their lives with family are other stories entirely.
This is not a novel about how family deals with ageing relatives: it’s a novel about how ageing women combat evil. There are more cups of tea than there is derring-do, for none of the women I chatted with were up to leaping from rooftops and crying “Huzzah! Have at thee!” and attacking villains with swords or ray guns or shards of punishing light. Although there is a stockwhip…
Mary: I love this idea of our baggage being costly. It’s true on a very deep level, I find, with or without the supernatural element. And I absolutely approve of ageing women with superpowers! I look forward to developing a few myself. (The power to quell bigots with my icy stare. The power to make Good Things Happen. The power to not give a flying beep about what anyone thinks. My model in all this is Dame Maggie Smith.) It looks like The Time of the Ghosts will be one for me.
I’m still amazed by the fact that you have four more novels slated to be published before 2017, as well as academic work. Could you tell me a little more about these future releases?
Gillian: It’s four by the end of 2017, if that makes things a little less intimidating. The order isn’t yet final, but the novels are:
Secret Jewish Women’s Business: where a feminist discovers that her heritage is not quite what she thought. It’s the precursor to my short story Impractical Magic.
Chocolate Redemption: a teacher takes a year off to write a novel. A young woman sets up shop as an apothecary in an alternate world. This story contains cats and chocolate and contains more snark than adventure.
Poison and Light: In our future, Earth has been depopulated. An artist finds a haven on a distant planet where eighteenth century Britain and France is so admired that it informs almost everything. It’s a dangerous society and she is hampered by PTSD. How will she survive?
After Empire: An empire dissolves suddenly due to losing its technology. Penin, a town on the far edge of that vast empire, has to survive. This is my committee novel, because in my history studies I discovered that certain societies use committees at times like this (Benjamin Franklin was a committee man!), and I wanted to see what one would be like.
Mary: That sounds tantalizing. I admit to being intrigued by your feminist’s journey of self-discovery. And committee science fiction sounds like something of a thought experiment, reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin or Doris Lessing. Is it?
Gillian: All my novels are thought experiments. The committee one is based on Australian and US history. I love stories about collapse of empires, but I wanted to write one that reflected what was more likely to happen, given a particular scenario. If technology collapses, how do people get by?
This is set in one of the first worlds I ever created, and I have other countries and their histories lurking, maybe waiting for another novel. One with fewer committees and more magic gardens, maybe. Although After Empire might be one of two set in Penin: my publisher has suggested that he wants to know what happens next with this one and with Poison and Light.
This is my fault. I like the idea that my characters have lives outside what we see in a novel, so I never close things off entirely. Readers come up to me and say “I know what happened to Character A in Langue[dot]doc 1305.” I have been given four different theories for one character, so far. I’m collecting alternate timelines. Whether I write these sequels depends on whether readers let me know that they want them.
Mary: You look set to be very busy over the next few years, which begs one last question. Where can your readers hope to find you to discuss these alternate fictional timelines? Will we find you at any upcoming conventions?
Gillian: I got to SF conventions when I can. My next one is Conflux, which is where The Time of the Ghosts will be launched. There will be honey cake… If you’re at a SF convention and you see me, ask me if I have any chocolate or sweets. I generally carry them for those in need.
Otherwise, you can find me in various teaching places and online. My teaching is mostly in Canberra, but I’m going to Eurobodalla later this year, and to Sydney next year. Watch my blog and look for me on Twitter or Facebook if you want to see me in person, for I generally make announcements prior to events. I claim that it makes it easier for people to avoid me. I’m Gillian Polack on Facebook and @GillianPolack on Twitter. I have a writerly blog and webpage at http://www.gillianpolack.com which is young but slowly growing.
Mary: Thank you so much for swinging by the blog today, Gillian! It has been a pleasure and an honour to speak with you, as always. Here’s to the success of The Art of Effective Dreaming and The Time of the Ghosts as well as your other upcoming projects.
What Gillian has to say about herself: I have a doctorate in English and another in History and an MA in Medieval Studies and have four novels published. While I like to claim that the second doctorate is purely for cosmetic purposes (so that people can make puns about my name, for instance, which they do, since I am now Dr Dr GP and a Dr Who fan which makes me the Three Doctors and explains much) it’s actually a change in career. While I’m still a practising historian, the writing and editing and the teaching of writing and its various tools are the centre of my life.
Find out more about Gillian on her website: www.gillianpolack.com
Just a heads up that I will be doing an interview with Gillian Polack in the coming days, partly to celebrate the release of Gillian’s new book (she is prolific!) and partly because chatting to Gillian is fun (she is interesting!) So watch this space.
Meanwhile, those of you who live downunder may find her at these times and locations at the Conflux speculative fiction convention in Canberra. And remember: If you’re going to Conflux convention, be sure to wear some antennae in your hair, if you’re going to Conflux Canberra, you’re gonna meet some cosplay people there.
My cousin recently reminded me of this wonderful piece, dating from around 2000 years ago. (Ah, how well I remember those nights in old Ephesus… The feasting… The ladies in piled-up headdresses… The minotaurs… Those were the days.)
Anyway. As the song says:
“While you live, shine
Don’t suffer anything at all;
Life exists only a short while
And time demands its toll.”
This post brings to a close my conversation with artist and film director Roger Kupelian. I hope readers of this blog enjoy it as much as I did. Roger, thank you for participating! You may find each section in the links below:
Those interested in finding out more about Roger Kupelian’s film and graphic novel work can check out his website, here.
The first in his ‘War Gods’ graphic novel series is also available on Amazon, here.
MARY: I enjoyed your collaborations with Serj Tankian. I’d like to see more of that.
If the genie visited me, I would probably make the same tired wish that all artists make: “Let me earn enough to live by my art.” We don’t have much imagination, do we? But really, that’s what it comes down to. We just want to work. And sometimes eat. But mostly work. And care for the ones we love. And work.
Apart from that, I’d be curious to see a play I’d written performed. That’s a whole new ball game for me and really fascinating.
Now, I’d like to ask you a different and more difficult question. I’d love to hear your thoughts on identity and the advantages/limits of a strong cultural focus when it comes to making art. Do you find you get pigeonholed as “an Armenian director”? Conversely, do you prefer to be identified that way? Do you think it enriches your contribution? Do people make assumptions about you?
ROGER: Ooo, you asked for this one…
I hope not… but people always look at the work you’ve done rather than the entire scope of what you are about to do. I try to mix the groups that work on these projects with me so that we get different perspectives. It is insulting, to be honest, when it is assumed that someone with my background, raised where I was raised, etc, is incapable of stepping outside of my skin, and looking at it from another angle. The music vids I did for Serj were not about the Armenian culture, for example, but the fact that Roger KupelIAN and Serj TankIAN did something together sends up a flag in some circles. (I’ve faced a lot of ethnic stereotyping within my 20-year stint in VFX, but maybe that’s because it’s based in Los Angeles, and they encounter Armenians on a daily basis. It’s the new group to feel ‘threatened by’. )
For EoB , I’ve had AMAZING support from diverse places, including my ethnic kin, but we’re not a culture used to supporting the media arts generally. Some other tribes are better at it and have been at it longer.
Take my Graphic Novel series – as much as it’s all in English and tries not to be too ethnocentric, it is about what it is. There’s an inherent bias to contend with, as it does not fit into any of the ‘known quantities’ and trendy topics currently circulating. I mean, I didn’t care. EoB was a labour of love and had to be expressed. People who like it like it. I didn’t wake up trying to take a mega commercial project one morning.
For the documentary series, we had to make a different consideration, however.
For Western audiences, Rome has to be a very WHITE Rome (usually with Brit accents). Ethnics are usually the bad guys, tagalongs at best. (In fact the only show to try and ATTEMPT to change that a bit was TV’s Spartacus. It almost succeeded.)
EoB is about a more ‘Ethnic’ and Culturally Diverse version of Rome, what we call the Eastern Empire, and later on renamed Byzantium by German Scholars. We cover everyone who was big at the time. And Armenians were among those who were “big at the time”. We knew that to a modern audience used to a certain thing in a certain way, one had to be careful. I’ve seen it where all people have to do is learn my last name and they immediately start stereotyping. They can’t help it.
One of our main actors who plays the Pagan High Priest is a long time friend of mine; the Artist Vahe Berberian. During one of his lectures, he spoke of the way we’re pigeonholed into being ‘nationalistic’. He said our tribal instincts come out of a need to survive as we are indeed an endangered culture. We love encountering each other in far off places. Kind of like, ‘oh you survived too!? yay!’
Others don’t come at it like that. Popular media sees us as a non-visible minority and in fact easy bogeymen for lazy TV writers. I wrote a whole article about it.
To a bland, consumer-driven world, anything that says ‘ancient’ and demands attention to a particular culture may seem a bit heavy-handed. You’ve heard that before I am sure: “You are too close to the topic”.
You’ve got the West with it’s deteriorating sense of identity, noted by a loss of faith in many of its institutions, coupled with an extreme upswing of tribalism fuelling the Middle East (once the Eastern Roman and Persian empires, to be sure). People are trying to come up with a general sense of utopia but it’s not working. In fact, Tribes are being amplified. It’s a good thing when it gives a person a sense of belonging and family, enriching traditions and such. The extreme is not so good.
The fact is, People will always make Tribes. “One Tribe” slogan is Utopian Bullshit. Who’s version of Utopia are we buying into? Dancing on drugs in the desert? Whatever’s trending on Twitter? What some news network says is the status quo? People will react to that and form their own little tribes. Regardless. It’s human.
Everything we believe comes from that. That’s why the anti-religion crusade has it wrong. The only way to completely eradicate group violence is to do away with the ability to form groups, which is a human survival tactic. It’s ancient. It’s a tool. It gets out of hand. Never going away unless we go away.
It should be, and I believe this (which is why I choose to live where I live) ‘Of the Many, One.” A Happy Big Tribe is made up of many happy little tribes.
My projects seem to be about maintaining what is a core identity while making it work within a greater vision. E Pluribus Unum.
MARY: I admire your courage. You manage to stay true to your roots, true to your experience, all the while remaining clear and balanced in your approach. I don’t think a kind of “sane tribalism” is at odds with democratic nationhood – quite the reverse. People can be both loyal to their own close group, and working incessantly towards a greater good. I think that’s probably true of the planet in general – we can and should be able to serve our tribe and humanity at the same time. No utopias required. People who grumble and moan that it’s impossible are just playing the “divide and conquer” game.
The history geek in me loves a diverse Rome, by the way. The ancient Mediterranean world would have been a melting pot – especially those centres of culture and power, Rome and Byzantium. Endless exchanges between peoples and cultures… Phoenician, North African, Viking, Hebrew… hummus and falafel available at all ports. Everyone busily giving unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and getting on with life. (We moderns should take note.)
ROGER: Speaking of diverse roots, you have some very diverse roots and I would love it if you could expound on that a little bit. I am sure it’s added to who you are both as an artist and as a person.
MARY: Well, it’s certainly made me what I am! (Confused?)
Briefly, my family has roots in various parts of Iran, Baghdad, Azerbaijan and, rather less exotically, north London. They were Muslims, Christians and Jews. Many of them became Baha’is, which is why they ended up travelling so far from their homelands and marrying people outside their immediate communities. So a Baghdadi Jew married an Iranian girl from a Sh’ia background, for example, while an Azeri married into a family of exiles in Palestine. Later on, a contingent decamped from Iran to Uganda. Branches of the family lived in Germany, Canada, the US and Israel for many years. Basically, they all emigrated, resettled and globe-trotted from the nineteenth century onwards, and by the time it got to me the genes were a mess.
I do sometimes envy people with strongly identifiable cultural background and experience. But I suppose we’re all mongrels of one sort or another. What it has given me: a desire to build bridges between people, and a great deal of sympathy for those who find themselves on the move, exiled, uprooted or obliged for one reason or another to leave their homelands.
ROGER: Before any more wars can be waged, war lobbies and campaigns can be mounted or political decisions could be made, I wish someone would do mandatory genetic testing for everyone and publish the results. Let’s see who came from where and how connected everyone is, and then maybe we’d find some solutions.
MARY: Ha, ha. Even if they did that, some would claim to be more human than others…
ROGER: “Four legs good, two legs better.”
*END OF PART THREE*
ROGER: Looking at your characters from both your Tree series and especially Cyprus, who’s your pocket favourite?
And regarding the dejected People of Anatolia and the Caucasus, What’s the way forward for us?
MARY: Let’s see… I feel strongly for all of my characters, otherwise I wouldn’t write them. If by “favourite” you mean one that possesses me, whom I grapple with heart and soul, it would be Mitra, the mother in my Cypriot story. She isn’t easy to write: not a romantic heroine in a traditional sense, she nevertheless has a strong personality. She endures a great deal of suffering. It’s a challenge to write that sort of character and keep her active and engaging. Work in progress!
You ask a difficult question about ways forward. To look at the current situation in the Middle East is to court depression. I don’t know the way forward. I see people bickering as they have for centuries, embroiled in tribal warfare. I also see a new kind of trans-national and trans-tribal warfare, based on apocalyptic religious ideas that mean nothing to me. As much as I’d like to answer the question with one simple word – “cooperation” – it seems impossible to achieve at the moment.
On the other hand, people do reach a tipping point. After a few decades of entrenched problems they turn around and change their minds. Witness the situation in Cyprus. Bit by bit we move forward. What do you think? Do you feel dejected?
ROGER: What do I feel? Honestly, due to a variety of challenges last year, survival has been on my mind. Everything else is pretty much a whole lifetime of exposure. Every country linked to my formational identity is having a rough time of it.
Sierra Leone. Lebanon. Armenia. Umm, Glendale?
I continue doing what I do because I can’t help it. I’m not playing violins all day every day but if you don’t acknowledge reality it will simply blindside you sooner or later.
MARY: The news from Sierra Leone has been devastating. It seems some places have a rough time of it on an ongoing basis, and Sierra Leone is one of them. I kept wondering why it was taking the rich countries so long to intervene in the Ebola crisis. The clock was ticking, people were dying. There was a degree of cynicism evinced by people in the UK towards those suffering, which I found intolerable. I sometimes felt like shaking some sense into people (especially when I made the mistake of reading comments on online news articles). What would they do if whole villages in Suffolk were dying off, I wonder? Would they stay within the reach of a deadly disease, or try every means of escape at their disposal? The lack of empathy amazes me.
ROGER: People are really in a calamity-fatigue climate. So much is going wrong with this world, they don’t see the possibilities. Just the cynicism. Humans are predisposed to end-world scenarios.
MARY: Well. Now that we’ve ended the world, what do you want to talk about next?
ROGER: I’d want to revisit why people leave a lucrative animation career and go off reservation.
MARY: Possibly because they were never ‘on reservation’ in the first place? 🙂
I never seem to be able to do what’s expected of me, which has its advantages and disadvantages. But I’ve watched far better people than me forge animation careers at the best companies, after which life blindsides them, anyway. The best laid plans of mice and men, and so on.
As I get older I care even less about what I “should” do. I suspect that by the time I’m 60, I’ll be a full on rebel, living on a commune and growing hydroponics. What about you? Do you miss that world of VFX?
ROGER: In a way I’m still in it. And I love VFX. EoB was my way of finding the passion again. To me, VFX is part of This Director’s toolkit.
MARY: Tell me what your dreams and hopes are for the coming years.
ROGER: In terms of work, my dream for the future is that I can take a lot of these stories that are bubbling up inside my head and put them in the graphic novel format. I would like to collaborate further with other artists and creating things that inspire people. Plus, there are a few other documentaries I would love to do. And I would like to do a bunch of things abroad.
*END OF PART TWO*
As anyone who follows this blog will know, Roger Kupelian is an up-and-coming film director, graphic novelist and Hollywood VFX wizard who also happens to have done some superb artwork for Tymon’s Flight. Roger and I met in New Zealand during my VFX animation days. I caught up with Roger recently, curious about what he’d been doing on the creative front in the last few years. I knew it would be worth looking into.
The result was a conversation that dealt with our respective creative news, but also grappled with some other interesting and sometimes difficult subjects. Because life is strange, wonderful, difficult, perplexing, sweet and heartbreaking, and it’s sometimes good to take stock with a friend and shoot the breeze.
I’ve split the breeze-shooting into three parts, and will post one part a day for the next three days. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did… And thank you for being game, Roger!
MARY: Roger, how di body? It’s been a while since I saw you in town. What have you been up to since we last spoke?
ROGER: Koosheh. We deh Freetown pikin. Things have been bittersweet and prolific. How about you?
MARY: Mostly sweet. The third instalment of my ‘Chronicles of the Tree’ fantasy series came out in Australia and New Zealand in 2011. ‘Samiha’s Song’ won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel in 2012, which was a very sweet/sad way to say goodbye to the Land of the Long White Cloud. We moved to London at the end of that year. Since then, I’ve been writing a novel set in my childhood home of Cyprus, which I’m currently in the process of adapting as a play. I attended a course with a wonderful playwright who works at the National Theatre, in February.
Writing for theatre turned out to be something of a revelation – I’d come home from the workshop buzzing with ideas and unable to sleep, obsessed with this new form. I realized I was onto something I loved. I hope to “workshop” my play in September and take it further.
What about you? You’ve developed some incredible ideas of your own over the past few years – could you give me a potted history of your creative doings since 2011?
ROGER: Having grown up as the son of a writer, I know full well how thankless writing could be. So, being a glutton for punishment, I decided to take the ideas that came out of my fledgling screenwriting efforts, and convert them to graphic novels, which I did with the East of Byzantium graphic novel series.
War Gods and Warrior Saints are a real labour of love. I don’t pretend to be a comic book artist by any means, but this was a way for me, as a film production artist, to lay out the screenplay in a sequential art form, and say “Here it is. Here is the vision!”
MARY: Both of us have come from a background in film production. We met working on Peter Jackson’s LOTR films, in New Zealand – I can’t believe that was fifteen years ago! It was a tough job and a great job in many ways.
But it’s a big step from doing shots to pulling together an entire creative project of one’s own. Many of us dream: only a few manage to do it. You’ve actually done it, developing East of Byzantium.
And now you’ve been at this fascinating, infuriating and addictive business – storytelling – for a few years. What do you think of it? Do you find you tell stories because you have some specific idea, or reality to communicate? Or do you do it because you have to – because the stories break out of you, alien-style?
ROGER: Yes. EoB is at once the most wonderful and the most vexing thing I’ve ever done.
I think a lot of this comes from any anxiety that an artist is feeling and just tries to express through art, as we developed this language of expression early on to try and deal with life. This is a way of survival, and it adds meaning.
I found myself in your Cyprus novel. I could tell that whatever the topic was at that point, it was very natural to you, and it connected with me. During the Civil War in Lebanon, my relatives found refuge in Cyprus. Also, after World War 1, my grandfather was sent there where he joined the French-created Legion Armenienne. On my own trip there, our pilot made sure to point out the greener Turkey-occupied zone.
But beyond those facts, you built a world around a set of characters in the tragic reality of that island state, yet each in their own way endeavouring to overcome history.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, projects founded on a historical reality but told through creative invention (which is what the graphic novels for EoB really are), are my favourite kind of storytelling.
It also allows us to take a look at current events and weigh them against the past, but in a way that is not immediately confrontational, giving the reader or the viewer, some time to digest and really explore what the author is trying to say.
MARY: You’ve said some kind things there about my book… I really appreciate it. History is a mine for creativity, isn’t it? Especially when it touches us in some personal way. There are stories that clamour to be told and that won’t leave us alone. (I guess that’s what I meant about the story clawing its way out.) They may be set centuries ago but they have contemporary echoes and relevance – otherwise we wouldn’t be so drawn to them.
Since we’re comparing notes about projects, I will tell you what I loved about the second volume of your graphic novel series (I’m looking forward to the third). Aside from the sumptuous visuals – something I would absolutely expect from you, given your talents – I was intrigued to discover a story I’m not usually given the chance to hear. Where else would I find a contemporary treatment of the life of a fifth century Armenian hero, which tells an exciting tale while not shying away from the historical complexities? I look at the cultural landscape around me, especially in visual media, and see multiple retellings of the lives of English kings as well as Arthurian and Nordic myth. But other cultures are pretty thin on the ground. Believe me, I love me a bit of Henry Tudor and Merlin and Game of Thrones/Wars of the Roses, but variety is the spice.
We need people passionate about telling different kinds of stories. We need to hear voices full of love for other histories, cultures, lands. The love is key. One can criticize, sometimes harshly, but the criticism is balanced out by a deep desire for something higher or better – and the conviction that the people in the story are capable of it. A storyteller is most scathing about those he loves. Storytelling is a moral exercise – not because we are sitting in judgment over some fictitious person, but because we are learning to empathize. The story allows us to say, “he struggled, he was human, he failed, he was just like us”.
*END OF PART ONE*
A quick note to say: Frank Victoria, concept designer extraordinaire and cover artist for the Tree books, among many other things, has a new website! This is a treasure trove for anyone who loves fantasy and science fiction, or simply art in general. Highly recommended… Check it out!